Overcoming the Trauma of the Holocaust: Will Light Pierce the Darkness?

by Avraham Burg, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008

An individual and collective internalization of love is the true precondition to peace in the Middle East, according to Avraham Burg’s heartfelt book on Israel/Palestine, The Holocaust Is Over, We Must Rise From Its Ashes. But how to tap into that healing love, when trauma runs so deep?

Burg — a former member and speaker of the Knesset, from Israel’s Labor party, who has written on a number of occasions about ending the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza — has much to offer to conversations about how to move Israel past the trauma of the Holocaust and toward peace. In The Holocaust Is Over, his focus is more about the soul of Israel rather than a proposal for peace, but the connections are clear: Holocaust memory, identity politics, and the Israel-Palestine conflict are indelibly linked by trauma, and the inability to resolve the lingering effects of this trauma has crippled all efforts at peace.

In the years that have passed since the publication of Burg’s book in 2008, Israel has moved further away from the place of healing and reconciliation he calls for and instead toward a place of greater fear and anger. In the past several months alone, settlement activity in the West Bank has resumed (if it ever really stopped); the now infamous Citizenship and Reentry Law, in place since 2003, has been extended again, preventing young spouses of Israeli citizens who come from the West Bank from obtaining residency in Israel; and a bill has cleared the cabinet that would amend the citizenship law to require non-Jews to take an oath of loyalty to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. (Fortunately, this bill doesn’t enjoy majority support in the Knesset.)

Recent reporting adds to the bleak picture: in the December 13, 2010, issue of Time, Karl Vick reported that because of the separation wall in the West Bank, fewer Palestinian youth have any contact with, or even knowledge of, ordinary Israelis. In an article from September, Vick made the even more damning case that Israelis feel little urgency for peace. On the other side of the political spectrum are advocates like Aryeh Rubin, who argued in The Jewish Week in October that liberal Jews are “endangering” Israel and that the only antidote to Auschwitz is Israel and its military might. Just in the first few days of 2011, we witnessed the toll that this “might” takes: a thirty-six-year-old kindergarten teacher, Jawaher Abu Rahmah, choked to death from tear gas spread by Israeli forces while she watched a demonstration at Bil’in, a village where demonstrations against the separation wall have persisted since 2005. The Israeli Supreme Court ruled over three years ago that the IDF had to move the wall back, but it has yet to implement the decision. Meanwhile Qassam rockets continue to be fired from Gaza, resulting in an obligatory and predictable response from the Israeli Air Force.

In this bleak context, Burg’s monitory is more relevant than ever.

A Different Perspective on the Holocaust

One of the major requirements for Israeli society, according to Burg, is the need to link the Holocaust to the broader history of past and ongoing genocides. Burg never questions the uniqueness of the Holocaust, but he laments the absence of a universal application of its lessons. He decries Israel’s support for Serbia during its ethnic cleansing of Kosovo; he has qualms about Israel’s relationship with Turkey given, among other things, its refusal to acknowledge the 1915-17 Armenian genocide; and he questions how it can be that so few Israeli students know much about the genocides that preceded the Holocaust.

He may be overstating it when he says, “The Final Solution was launched somewhere in the new world, decades before Auschwitz. Extermination took place in the New World of North America, and four decades before the Holocaust in Europe, Germany perfected the model in Africa,” but the need for Israelis to see the connections with the Namibian or Armenian past is profoundly urgent. In 1904-7 in German South-West Africa (today’s Namibia), tens of thousands of the Herero people were murdered by direct German orders — thousands by shooting, and the rest by poisoning, death marches, and incarceration in concentration camps. For Burg, the chief lesson of the Holocaust is to condemn human rights violations everywhere and not to have relations with immoral regimes. (The reality here, however, is that if Israel undertook this policy, it would find few states in the world with which to have relations, and Israel itself would probably be on the banned list.)

Unlike scholars such as Tim Cole and Tom Segev, who document in great detail the politicization of the Holocaust inside and outside of Israel, Burg takes a personal, impressionistic approach. His chapters are relatively short and peppered with anecdotes about his parents and observations about the pervasiveness of the Shoah in Israeli state and society. Burg’s father, Yosef, was a refugee from Hitler’s Germany who went on to become a prominent leader of religious (Mizrachi) Zionism. Burg’s mother, Rivka, was a survivor of the 1929 Hebron massacre. He insists that his parents gave their children happy lives, insulating them from the pervasive effects of “Shoahization” (his word). It was his mother, who died just before the publication of the book, who boiled down the problem of Israel’s trauma in one simple conversation. As Avraham and Rivka drove through the streets of Jerusalem after celebrating what would be her last birthday, she said simply, “Avraham, God probably loves me very much … all my life I was surrounded by love.” Remembering the conversation that followed, he writes:

Thoughts on the power of the love that saved my mother were spinning inside my head. A short time later, we spoke again and the conversation turned to the news. The Israeli Air Force was bombing and killing innocent people in Gaza, on its beaches and streets, and in Lebanon’s villages and cities. My mother’s grandson is an IAF pilot, the captain of a transport plane.

“I’m so glad he’s not a combat pilot,” she commented.

“Why?” I asked, surprised.

“Would I want my grandson to drop bombs on innocent people?”

I was silent in the face of the courage of love that shone from her. As someone who lost her childhood in Hebron in 1929, she could afford to be a bit less tolerant…. But it seemed that the same love that surrounded her had also seeped into her. She became for me an embodiment of the ultimate Jewish heroine.

For Burg, one of the first steps in moving past trauma has to be an individual and collective internalization of love. This may sound naive, but if one sees this as the maximization of Hillel’s dictum of “do not unto others,” which Burg quotes later on in the book, then at least its connection to one of the major, if not the major, strands of Jewish thinking is unmistakable. Judaism, in Burg’s worldview, is all about the Golden Rule, and the state that represents the values of the Jewish people should demonstrate its best practice.

The Abused Child Grows Up

Israel, however, is far from this ideal. Indeed, Burg likens his country to “a battered boy” who becomes an abusive father. In his eyes, “Israel arms itself to the teeth like the weak boy who comes to class equipped with a bat, a knife, and a slingshot to overcome his real and imagined bullies.” One could certainly make the argument that the state has been warped by the existential threats it has faced in its six decades of existence, and the absence of Palestinian and Arab partners in peace for much of that time is not in question, but there have been opportunities for breaking the cycle of violence in the past decade that Israel could have taken. The blanket rejection of negotiating in the event of any terrorist attack gave terrorists an absolute veto over peace, and most recently, the Netanyahu cabinet refused to extend the moratorium on settlement activity for three months, knowing full well that direct talks with Palestinians would come to a halt. (All the while, government officials speak of their readiness to talk without any preconditions, even though one could view the insistence on resuming settlement activity or decoupling it from the talks as a precondition.) There is little doubt, though, that the increasing number of settlers in the West Bank over the past two decades, up from 280,000 in 1993 to over 500,000 in 2009, has rendered the border problem as a more insoluble issue than either the refugee problem or the question of Jerusalem. In terms of optics, the refusal to consider an extension of the moratorium, even as a confidence-building measure, solidifies the impression that the current Israeli administration is more concerned about land than peace.

Borders and settlements are strikingly absent from Burg’s writing, but he does make an impassioned plea for Israelis to admit their role in creating the Palestinian refugee problem. In his words:

We have to admit that, post-Shoah, we valued our lives because we wanted to live after so much death. We were not sufficiently sensitive to the lives of others, and the price that they paid for our salvation. Please forgive us, and together we will put an end to the unhealthy refugee mindset that torments us all. Let us stand together for our common future.

If this kind of sentiment has been rare in Israeli public discourse in the past, it will be practically nonexistent if the so-called Nakba bill passes subsequent readings in the Knesset; this bill will prohibit state funding to any organization that marks Israeli Independence Day with sorrow for the Palestinians.

A Jewish and a Democratic State?

For Israel to move forward it must radically reorder itself as a political entity. Aluf Benn, among others, has written about Israel’s identity crisis and the tensions between Israel’s proclamation as a Jewish and democratic state. Is it possible to be both? Not in a strict or literal sense, because both involve different sets of codes and expectations about behavior in the public sphere. Burg doesn’t tackle this issue with great specificity, but he has a number of recommendations. He wants Germany to be set “free” from its past, which is probably artless language for removing the specter of the Shoah in diplomatic relations whenever possible, and he also would like to see the legal notion within Israel of prosecuting crimes against the Jewish people give way to a broader construct of prosecuting crimes against humanity. Most importantly, he suggests that Israel revisit its Law of Return, even though a number of countries have this “ethnic fast track” to citizenship. He sees as problematic both the racial definition of the Jew dating back to Nuremberg and the matrilineal definition of Orthodox Jewry. For Burg, Jewishness should come from within and be about more than having a Jewish mother. At the same time, he wants to see Israel become “a democratic state of the Jewish people which belongs to all of its citizens and [in which] the majority will decide on its character and essence.”

It would have been helpful for Burg to sketch out what this would look like. Would this ultimately bring complete civil control over personal issues such as marriage, divorce, and death? Would it mean a neutral public sphere for all? Would there be a separation of church and state? How would Israel’s “Jewish character” (if there is only one) be expressed? What if the majority decide on an ultra-Orthodox theocracy? How is Burg’s definition of democracy congruent with what is arguably the most pressing demand of a democracy — equality before the law? Burg does not offer answers to these important questions, but that is not his task. He is offering theory and framework, and for him, Israel has to begin anew with a different Judaism, a different approach to democracy, and a different understanding of the lessons of the Holocaust. This will involve a hefty dose of Emmanuel Levinas, who sought a world where the self derives its fundamental ethics from the receiving and unconditional embracing of the absolute other, as well as a healthy process of “working though” and letting go of trauma — which may, to paraphrase historian Dominick LaCapra, lead Israel to counteract some of its extreme effects and allow it to rebuild its individual and social life.


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